Boris Johnson is biting the business hand that has always fed him

The country's business class are wincing at the Prime Minister's 'disloyalty'

The folks I know in business and in the City of London are all shaking their heads in anger and frustration. Not one has anything good to say about Britain's current government. They’re perplexed that a Conservative administration should display such little disregard for them.

Take the Budget. There is virtually nothing in it for the private sector, no major measure for them to get excited about. There is a discount on business rates for pubs, restaurants and shops, but it lasts only a year, and a promise again that this much-reviled tax will be overhauled. Instead, the main headlines are about pay rises for public sector workers, an increase in the minimum wage, help for low earners and reform of alcohol duties.

Last week, at the UK’s Global Investment Summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson put on a typical bravura performance, full of quips and devoid of meaningful detail. Arranged in front of him were some of the world’s most powerful corporate leaders, including several bank chiefs. They could forgive him, because “that’s Boris”, but nevertheless they were left scratching their heads at the lack of substance.

At the recent Tory conference, it was the fault of business that the UK was suffering from embarrassing shortages of labour and produce. For too long, the narrative went, greedy business types had been making giant profits from paying their workers so little. Therefore, it was not surprising that they could not find the staff. But the post-Brexit economy is to become high skills, high wages. Just like that.

Normally, ahead of such a shift in direction, various members of the business great and good would be brought in, sat down and asked what they thought. Not this time. The captains of industry were completely blind-sided.

They don’t forget either, that when he was foreign secretary, Mr Johnson used an extremely rude expletive to sum up his attitude towards business. Clearly, judging by his behaviour since, they say, the four-letter word was meant.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago in which a businessperson complained: “You would think that Boris Johnson would treat us better. After all, he went to Eton and Oxford, and all his friends are in business.”

The speaker’s face was serious. And this goes to the heart of the problem.

The City and business like to suppose that Mr Johnson is one of them. He may not have held down a commercial career before heading into politics, unlike Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, both former bankers. And his surname is not associated with a family-owned company, unlike his former party colleague George Osborne. But he grew up surrounded by people who went into law, banking, accounting, stockbroking or insurance, or set up businesses themselves.

He leads a party, too, that has always declared itself to be the “friend of business”. It is their natural constituency. The Tories rely on private donations, mostly from those who made fortunes in commerce. Mr Johnson’s triumphant Brexit campaign was paid for by super-rich hedge fund operators. Yet, this is how he repays them.

The hedge fund argument does not completely wash, since the donors were anxious not to have their industry regulated by the EU. They were not acting out of a wish to benefit their UK business chums and peers.

Even so, there is a strong feeling of betrayal. Financial services, upon which so much of the City depends, were not included in the Brexit agreement with the EU; bank bosses are constantly complaining about the difficult of doing business with the EU; and daily, the drift of bankers relocating to the likes of Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam increases.

Anyone visiting the Labour and Tory conferences would be left in no doubt either as to which one, seemingly, is closer to business. At Labour's, corporate brands were few and far between, private sector sponsorship was sparse and the exhibition hall was given over mostly to charities, campaigning organisations and trade unions. At the Conservatives', business logos and names were everywhere, and senior corporate figures were also out in force. All, it seems to little avail: business is receiving few favours from this government.

That’s not entirely true. Behind the scenes, lobbying is as strong as it ever was under a Conservative regime. Look, too, how all sorts of companies cashed in during the pandemic, striking contracts to supply PPE and private hospital beds to a beleaguered NHS.

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There is a strong feeling of betrayal

Mr Johnson is gushing as well, when it comes to acknowledging the role enterprise played in developing the vaccine. He likes to rattle off, as he did at his summit, Britain’s ground-breaking scientific discoveries and great industrial achievements, all of them down to brilliant business minds and endeavour.

Overall, though, there is a sense of treachery.

The reason for Mr Johnson’s stance is three-fold. First, his is a leadership that conducts focus groups and opinion polls about everything it does. In that research, being pro-big business scores badly. Time and again, it comes up that no senior banker went to jail over the 2008 crash; repeatedly, executive pay and bonus packages are pilloried.

That should not be a shock. If you put 10 ordinary people in a room and explore with them the cause of the nation’s ills, the role of business is bound to be raised. To be fair, several of its exponents have not exactly painted themselves and their colleagues in a good light either.

Years ago, it would have been the unions who would be blamed, but their power has waned – they no longer strike like they used to.

The surprise is that Johnson should pay such heed as he does. His objective is simple: he wants to win elections. That’s why he devotes so much attention to what the voters, in particular the swing voters, are thinking. Top of their list by a huge margin is the need to preserve the NHS, while assisting the business community is nowhere.

Second, financially, Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak have no room for manoeuvre. Theirs is a cash-strapped government. It’s no use for high earners and company bosses to look for handouts; there won’t be any. Rather, the Prime Minister and Chancellor take the view that those people can look after themselves.

Third, Mr Johnson can ignore the City and business simply because he can. He knows that, ultimately, they are not going to fall in behind Labour, and that their votes (and donations) are safe. If he had a charismatic, centrist opponent – another Tony Blair – against him, things might be different. But while Sir Keir Starmer is more popular in boardrooms than Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader is no threat.

Mr Johnson is set to continue on his path, and the spluttering on management floors and in golf and tennis clubs and all the places City and businesspeople like to gather will not be abating any time soon.

Published: October 27th 2021, 1:30 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London